Dave Keetch writes: I’ve previously harped on about the rewarding nature of flexible travel and I’m going to do it again. There is certainly something nice about being able to change your plans and stay in a place longer than intended because it’s too beautiful or too interesting to leave after only being there for one or two nights. The opportunity to savour a gem location isn’t simply good for breaking up a long journey, but it allows you to discover everything a place has to offer and, if you’re fortunate enough, to learn a little about what it’s like to live there.
Senegal was exceeding my expectations. I had even warmed to a dizzying Dakar, despite preferring to be away from big cities, and it hadn’t felt nearly as formidable as conventional opinion had suggested. It was getting close to Christmas though and we were looking for somewhere to kick back for a few days. The Casamance region in southern Senegal seemed as good a place as any to search for an idyllic break (idyllic if you ignore any rebel activity) and we were soon aboard the ferry to Ziguinchor and waving goodbye to Dakar.
Happily following the nose of locals and other tourists meant we didn’t waste much time in deciding where we would bunker down for the festive season. Coming with high recommendation was the coastal village of Cap Skiring, its reputation and promise of stretching beaches beckoned us. I was taking a risk arriving without reservations, but I wasn’t about to start breaking my habit of being disorganised. I needn’t have worried, there was accommodation to suit any budget and I managed to find ourselves a self-contained studio at a bargain price. I had been hankering to cook my own food and was going to let myself loose in the kitchen, a mouth-watering prospect given the array of seafood available at my fingertips.
Cap Skiring is a relatively popular destination so if you’re after complete beachside seclusion head elsewhere. We got lucky though, the Club Med (Club ‘Merde’ as it is disaffectionately known by the locals) was closed for repairs thanks to a recent kitchen fire and as a result the beaches were largely empty. The water is warm and a short stroll away from the main strip of sand will find you on your lonesome. Cap Skiring is not hassle-free either, but the same could be said for most of Senegal. You will inevitably be asked to buy a wood-carving, rent a bike, or eat at a restaurant, but the sales pitch isn’t persistent and a polite decline and cheery smile gives way to a conversation of a non-business nature.
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The surf was great, the food was good and the reggae parties were a hit, but it really was the conversation that I appreciated most. The Gambian influence is strong in Cap Skiring so English is spoken by many and I took the opportunity to have chat with anyone who could listen. Mostly I heard the tale of a young local man marrying an older French woman who was now back living in France, but my favourite and most forthright stories came from the hard-working Mustapha.
Mustapha was the sole owner and operator of the Happiness Juice Bar which sat in the sand of Cap Skiring’s main beach strip. It wasn’t much to look at, but the make-shift timber stand and his umbrellas and chairs were his sense of achievement.
Mustapha was from The Gambia and had left his family to earn a living in Cap Skiring, arriving with not much more than the clothes on his back and a few pieces of locally made jewellery. He knew no one when he first arrived and slept on the beach for nine months, through the rainy season, selling jewellery to tourists and eking a meagre wage from which he attempted to save every last Franc. After settling in to the coastal town, becoming part of the community and finding a roof to sleep under, he realised that he couldn’t go on selling jewellery. Many of the locals were selling jewellery and there was a lot of competition for the tourist dollar. He needed an idea that would separate him from others and would tap into an, as yet, underutilised niche. The Happiness Juice Bar was born.
The juice was nothing to write home about, but it was healthy and went down nicely after an hour or two of body surfing. Though, it wasn’t the juice that kept me coming back to his bar, but rather, I liked the cut of Mustapha’s jib. I enjoyed the fluent English conversation and admired his ingenuity, drive and humble nature. He had saved his money from the beginning and expanded his simple juice bar, adding a roof, a slick paint job, and beach umbrellas and chairs for customers to prop themselves up in as they watched unforgettable sunsets. I appreciated that he never stuck his hand out in want, which tended to happen quite a lot in Senegal. He didn’t rake in the cash, but admitted that he was doing better than if he were still selling jewellery.
In our conversations Mustapha talked a bit about the Cap Skiring community. Club Med had initially been a source of much joy for the locals, but the joy turned to slight resentment when everyone realised that the tourists who stayed there rarely left the complex. A stay in Club Med was fully catered for; its guests had no desire to spend money outside its walls. Life was hard for most of the locals, keeping aside whatever money they could spare during the high season when tourists came in their droves. Because when the rainy season came and the town was empty, there would be no source of income for many. Some tried their hand at construction work, but much of the time they wouldn’t end up being paid and had no recourse for complaint. That was the cycle of life in a town reliant on a tourist’s money, scrounging every Franc in high season and riding out the low season until the final drops of rain subsided and the first of the flabby French crowd arrived. In high season, everyone, tourists and locals alike, soak up the sun, surf and parties. It is a time for everyone to be happy and for good reason.
I really appreciated my time in Cap Skiring, not just because I recharged my batteries for the road ahead into Mali (very dusty as it turned out). The place opened its arms for me and, in turn, I opened my eyes a little. It doesn’t take a genius to observe that life is hard for most Africans and Cap Skiring is no exception, but the days spent in the coastal village made me a bit more conscious of how and where I would spend my tourist dollar in the future. After Cap Skiring, I was a dream-come-true for street food vendors.
Dave Keetch recently spent four months travelling through West Africa.